Iron In Kumaun Goes Back To First Millennium BC
by D.P. Agrawal and Manikant Shah
The discovery and the use of iron by man was an epoch making
event, which gave a fillip to his progress. The discovery of iron was perhaps
associated with copper smelting, as it was collected by accident when the
furnace temperature reached above 1500º C. It is also acknowledged that the
use of meteoric iron was not unknown to the ancient civilizations.
Since many centers of iron technology have been identified
in India, no single source of influence or independent center of iron technology
can be identified. On the other hand, the second urbanization of the Ganga
Yamuna Doab - must have required considerable quantities of iron. The question
remains whether Kumaun is the source of this iron.
This requires a closer look at the early evidence of iron
technology in Kumaun. Lets examine the various components of this evidence:
1. Literary and folklore evidence
2. Archeological evidence
3. Distribution of iron bearing mineral resources
4. Metallurgical traditions
As an example of the literary evidence that may be cited
in relation to the use of iron in Kumaun is the widespread use of words as
prefixes/suffixes which related to iron in the local dialects and languages.
These words point to the importance of iron metallurgy in Kumaun. Words like
Lo, Lu, and Loha are directly related to iron. The word
Agar, on the other hand, relates to mines and mining activities. Place
names related to iron are Lohaghat, Loharkhet, Lob, Lukhani, and Assurchula.
The word Asur has direct reference to the iron using tribes spread over a
wide area in north India, like Bihar. The Asur folklore tradition is very
strong in Kumaun and an early King Banasur is associated with the old iron
site of Lohaghat.
The Himalayan Gazetteer (Atkinson) mentions a legend
popular amongst the ironworkers on the borderland of Garhwal. This legend
relates the story of Kalia Lohar, whose ancestors forged the armaments for
the Pandavas of the Mahabharat. As a mark of respect to the legendry
hero, the workers to this day set aside five pieces of coal before they begin
work on iron. The legend may point to the antiquity of iron technology in
Atkinson also mentions the appointment of various officers,
mineralogical surveyors, and experts by the British Government to assess the
commercial viability of extracting the ores from the mines of Kumaun. Atkinson
refers to an order issued by the British Government to A. Laidlaw, a mineralogical
surveyor, in which mention is made that the government was already aware of
the considerable quantity of iron and copper ores present in the Kumaun area.
The government was also concerned "about the injury to the articles of
British imports once the iron works were begun there." The government
even launched a company by the name of 'Kumaun Iron Works.'
The clinching evidence, however, comes from the extensive
remains of iron working sites and slag found at these sites. Mention of iron
and iron mines in the old copper plates, ancient iron objects such as the
massive trident at the Gopeshwar temple, and a live tradition of mining in
the area all point to a rich tradition of iron metallurgy in the region.
Agrawal and Kharakwal have detailed such evidence of early iron metallurgy
in Central Himalayas (1998), including the references to iron mineral
occurrences in Kumaun. They have also C-14 dated an iron metallurgy site,
Uleni, near Pithoragarh, to c. 1000BC (PRL-1648, 1022-826 BC, calibrated value).
Distribution of iron minerals in Kumaun region
Vibha Tripathi (2001) in her recent book The Age of
Iron in South Asia writes that the northernmost parts of Kumaun Garhwal
Himalayas have hematite and limonite ores in the Tertiary and the earlier
sedimentary deposits, especially at Chamoli, Nainital and Almora region.
She also speculates that the early inhabitants of the Upper Ganga Plain must
have exploited these deposits. She further reports that in Nainital District
iron ore of all grades is found near Lusgiani and hematite occurs near Khairna.
Almora also has hematite of red and brown variety and has recently yielded
megaliths and iron working remains. Atkinson, in his Gazetteer, says
that iron mines were in Agar patti of Ramgarh pargana and the principal mines
were Lusgiani, Nathuakhan ,Gulla and Satbunga, Patti Lakhanpur in Chaugarkha
pargana, patti Darun, the mines Digatia and Thiratoli, Rangor patti at Jalal
and Digarhia. Patti Kharahi at Lob.Patti Giwar in pargana Pali at Chiteli,
Simelkhet , Gudi , Bailgaon , Mahakhauri and Tilwara.
Copper metallurgical traditions in Kumaun continue to this
day. Iron works, as reported by Atkinson, may have been continued until the
beginning of 20th Century, when the British finally dismantled them. The
metallurgical traditions today are practiced by the lower castes in Kumaun,
though Atkinson points out that the economic or social status of these castes
in the past was not as low as it is now.
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